Reading Teachers: helping students take responsibility & embrace mistakes

In our role as literacy interventionists, we often work with students who are afraid of failure. Many of our students lack a sense of agency because they have experienced repeated failures. ” Student agency” can be described as a student taking an active role in his/her learning. When students do not feel a sense of agency or ownership they can develop feelings of helplessness.

When we observe these students in their classrooms we may see them

  • sit back while things happen around them
  • not ask for help when needed
  • always go to an adult or classmate before giving something a try
  • avoid work by leaving for the nurse, bathroom, etc.
  • disrupt the learning of the class

Along with agency comes a sense of responsibility. Responsibility can make students feel vulnerable because of the possibility of failure. Students need to learn how to experience failure in a positive way which will allow them to learn from their mistakes.

When we meet with our students for their reading intervention time we can plan for promoting a sense of agency and responsibility, and an understanding that we learn from our mistakes. We need to believe in our students and convey to them that they are the type of kids who can figure things out.

In What’s the Best that Could Happen: New Possibilities for Teacher and Readers, Debbie Miller writes, “if we want children to take responsibility for their own behavior, we must first give them responsibility…” (p. 75). This calls on us to be intentional when thinking about where we could turn the responsibility over to our students and make sure that we are not doing for them what they can do for themselves.

The following are some suggestions for helping our students build a sense of agency, a feeling of being a problem-solver and comfort with taking risks.

Responsibility for supplies

I remember a Reading Recovery teacher leader sharing that we need to encourage our students to “take charge” of their learning in little ways that we might not even think of.  One example she gave was having our students grab their own basket of materials/books on their way in the room.  This really stuck with me and prompted me to look at other little ways my students could have more ownership and responsibility.

With a predictable lesson format, students can come right in the room, have a seat and get started on their own.  My intervention lessons start with students choosing a book to read from 2-3 familiar books.  When students are done reading their books they put them in their basket on their own.  When it is time to get a marker, whiteboard eraser, etc. I have them within arms reach so that my students can reach them.

It is important to set up expectations for how to quickly get materials to minimize wasted time.  This modeling can be done in early lessons.  Having a predictable lesson format, students that will get started on their own, and students who are responsible for their own materials is especially helpful when you are suddenly interrupted by a phone call.  It is a great feeling to see our students continue on with the lesson despite the interruption.

Support intrinsic motivation

We may want to reconsider providing our students with extrinsic rewards for a job well done.  When we over-rely on extrinsic motivation we create students who doubt their ability and only work for rewards.  With that said, in my opinion, there are certain special cases where we will need to start with an extrinsic reward system.

We can promote intrinsic motivation by providing students with choice, setting students up for success, providing feedback, and having students work with motivating and interesting materials.  When using specific feedback to reinforce behaviors children begin to learn that it feels good to try hard and that trying hard can lead to success. They will also be more likely to work hard because they trust that their teacher will provide them help when needed (Lyons, p. 83).

Choose your words carefully

We need to use the right kind of language that will communicate to our students that we expect them to make their own decisions, to solve problems, and try out new things.  We want to communicate loud and clear to our students that we believe they can do it.  It will be important that we first teach or are sure that students are able to to do what we are calling on them to do.  We can use language that reinforces the hard work that our students are doing.  We should reinforce partially correct responses and then teach the next step forward.

“I am a problem-solver.”

From the very beginning of our lessons together we should expect our students to be problem solvers.  They should be taught and expected to initiate their own problem-solving.

“What do you see that can help you?”

“Get it started.”

“What do you know.”

“What could you do?”

“When I make mistakes or face challenges it is no big deal.”

Students need to know that making mistakes and encountering challenges are normal parts of learning and that mistakes and challenges help us learn.

“What problems did you come across today?”

“Where was the tricky part?”

“What was hard on that page?”

“What did you notice?”

“I can do it!”

“You worked really hard on that.”

“You got that started all on your own.”

“You figured that out.”

“You kept trying until you figured it out.”

“You solved that problem all by yourself.”

Teach for effective processing

We want to teach our students to be strategic rather than teach them strategies.  “Teaching children strategies results in them knowing strategies, but not necessarily in their acting strategically and having a sense of agency”  (Johnston, p. 31).  When a student’s strategic action leads to effective processing this provides positive reinforcement to students.  They will want to continue the behavior that led them to success.  We can also reinforce effective processing by naming the work that they did which will bring it to their attention and make it more memorable for students.

“You read it again and thought about what would make sense.”

“You said bigger parts to figure out that word.”

“You noticed it didn’t look right and tried something else.”


Regularly share with your students’ classroom teachers all that they are able to do on their own.  We can brainstorm with the classroom teacher areas in which we can help our students become more independent in both settings.  If the intervention does not happen in the classroom we will want to visit the classroom during the literacy block time to observe how our students are growing in their independence and in what areas we can support further growth.

In summary

From our first interactions with our reading students, we need to expect success.  We should create situations in which our students have choice and feel empowered. Peter Johnston says it best, “Developing in children a sense of agency is not an educational frill or some mushy-headed liberal idea. Children who doubt their competence set low goals and choose easy tasks, and they plan poorly…Children with a strong belief in their own agency work harder, focus their attention better, are more interested in their studies, and are less likely to give up when they encounter difficulties with a weaker sense of agency” (Johnston, p. 41).



Johnston, Peter. Choice Words Portland: Stenhouse Publishers. 2004. Print

Lyons, Carol. Teaching Struggling Readers. Portsmouth: Heinemann. 2003. Print

Miller, Debbie. What the Best That Could Happen? Portsmouth: Heinemann. 2018. Print.

2 thoughts on “Reading Teachers: helping students take responsibility & embrace mistakes

  1. “Excellent post! I really do agree with what you have said in this article. I really appreciate and value everything you write about…
    Thank you so much for your time and all the good content you share.”


    1. Thank you so much for your kind words. It really means a lot to us that you find our content valuable. We greatly enjoy how blogging deepens our learning, extends our thinking, and helps us to make connections with other educators like yourself. 😃


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